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Immigrants, hit hard by the pandemic, are sending even more money back to Mexico

Wendy Fry and Alexandra Mendoza The San Diego Union-
Tribune (TNS)
Chef Silvana Alaniz at El Rincon Restaurant in San Ysidro, California, on Sept. 3, 2020.

SAN DIEGO - Silvana Alaniz, the owner of the tiny El Rincon restaurant in San Ysidro, works from dawn to dusk alongside her entire immediate family. Even her 10-year-old daughter helps serve the clientele who often wait in lines that wrap around the block for Silvana's locally famous menudo.

"We have five kids and they all cook," she laughed. "They all help here. They spend their summer days in this restaurant. I think that's one of the reasons we've been surviving."

But the restaurant supports not just her family in San Ysidro. Every month, Alaniz, 43, also sends money home to her father in Mexico.

The coronavirus pandemic slammed many of the immigrants who bused tables, picked crops and stood shoulder-to-shoulder in factories. But many have kept working in what are considered essential - if risky - jobs. And through the summer, Mexican immigrants like Alaniz living in the United States sent home record sums of money to their families, defying predictions that so-called remittances would plummet.

Mexico received $3.53 billion in remittances in July - most of it from the U.S. - a 7 percent increase over the same month in 2019, Mexico's central bank data showed Tuesday.

Even as the unemployment rate in the United States soared to 14.7 percent in April and the World Bank predicted global remittances would tank by about 20 percent, Latinos working in the United States baffled economists by sending more money home to Mexico and Central America than ever before.

In March, remittances hit their highest level since record-keeping began in 1995, spiking 36 percent to $4 billion. July was the third-highest level on record, central bank data showed.

The funds are a major support for the Mexican economy and low-income families across the country, supporting approximately 1.5 million families, according to the Mexican federal government.

"I think, initially, it was a surprise," Ismael Plascencia, the faculty director of business at the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California, said of the rise in remittances. "But it makes sense. People in the United States are very worried for their families in Mexico - for their health - that's why they are sending more money.

"Workers in the U.S. made a great effort because they know that their families in Mexico do not have access to good health systems," he added.

Alaniz, the owner of the El Rincon, explained that in Mexican culture, families don't cut off their loved ones in times of hardship.

"That is not an option. That is just the culture. We don't do that. For Mexicans - for Latinos in general; parents, family, grandpas, even uncles sometimes - the whole family stays together," she said. "We stick together.

"We use adversity not to separate, but to get closer together."

Latinos are more likely to work in front-line jobs, ride public transit, have underlying conditions and live in multi-generational homes - all considered risk factors for coronavirus.

In San Diego County, Latinos make up 34 percent of the population, but account for 63 percent of total coronavirus infections and 45 precent of deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, county government data show. In California, they are about 39 percent of the population but make up 60 percent of cases and 48 percent of deaths, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Experts say amid the pandemic immigrant workers are more likely to be considered "essential workers," often doing low-paying jobs that others won't in construction, maintenance and service sectors.

"Other people have a choice," said Plascencia. "They don't have a choice. They are the most vulnerable because of a lot of things they do are considered essential like cooking and agriculture. They are willing to do the jobs others are not and that was true before the pandemic, but now with the pandemic, it's even more true."

To send money home, workers in the United States often go to a business that allows for international payment services or transfers, such MoneyGram or a Western Union. The businesses usually charge a fee and the exchange rate of U.S. dollars to pesos is usually slightly worse than is offered in banks.

The vast majority of remittances are done by electronic transfer. Of the $3.53 billion received by Mexico in July 2020, $3.49 billion was in electronic transfers, $24.9 million in cash and kind, and $12 million in money orders, data show.

The average remittance in the period from January to July was $337, 4.3 percent higher than the same period of 2019.

Outside the Western Union on San Ysidro Boulevard, people were reluctant to speak about the process.

"They're afraid (to talk)," explained Alaniz, whose parents use to own a money-transfer business. "People are afraid if they put their real address maybe ICE is going to come get them, or even though it is legal to send money home, they're worried maybe someone will think they're doing something wrong."

At the money-transfer outlet Elektra in Tijuana's Plaza Carrousel, Lisa Garcia, 44, said both her children in Orange County were working any and every job available so they can send funds for her medical care and rent.

"Thank God for family," she said. "Right now, my son is just doing a little bit of everything. A little construction. He drives Lyft. Whatever work he can find."

Though she does not have the coronavirus, Garcia has been sick with flu-like symptoms. So the maquiladora where she worked didn't want to take the chance she was spreading the disease, Garcia said. She's among the 12 million people in Mexico who lost their job during the pandemic, according to the federal government.